Poof! How to Evaporate a Planet
The scorched planet, called HD 209458b, orbits only 4 million miles (7 million kilometers) from its yellow, Sun-like star. The Hubble observations reveal a hot and puffed up evaporating hydrogen atmosphere surrounding the planet. This huge envelope of hydrogen resembles a comet with a tail trailing behind the planet. The planet circles the parent star in a tight, 3.5-day orbit. Earth also has an extended atmosphere of escaping hydrogen gas, but the loss rate is much lower.
An international team of astronomers, led by Alfred Vidal-Madjar of the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, CNRS, France, is reporting this discovery in the March 13 Nature Magazine. "We were astonished to see that the hydrogen atmosphere of this planet extends over 124,000 miles (200,000 kilometers)," says Vidal-Madjar.
HD 209458b is too close to the star for Hubble to photograph directly. However, astronomers could observe the planet indirectly since it blocks light from a small part of the star during transits across the disk of the star, thereby dimming it slightly. Light passing through the atmosphere around the planet is scattered and acquires a signature from the atmosphere. In a similar way, the Sun's light is reddened as it passes obliquely through the Earth's atmosphere at sunset. Astronomers used Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) to measure how much of the planet's atmosphere filters light from the star. They saw a startling drop in the star's hydrogen emission. A huge puffed up atmosphere can best explain this result.
The planet's outer atmosphere is extended and heated so much by the nearby star that it starts to escape the planet's gravity. "The atmosphere is heated, the hydrogen escapes the planet's gravitational pull and is pushed away by the starlight, fanning out in a large tail behind the planet - like that of a comet," says Alain Lecavelier, des Etangs at the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, CNRS, France. Astronomers estimate the amount of hydrogen gas escaping HD 209458b to be at least 10,000 tons per second, but possibly much more.
NASA's planned Kepler mission will monitor thousands of stars over a four-year period, searching for transiting planets. Kepler will be sensitive enough to detect Earth-sized worlds, if any exist, around several hundred nearby stars. These studies will then lead to the ambitious Terrestrial Planet Finder mission (2012-2015), which will examine extrasolar planets for signs of life.
The team is composed of A. Vidal-Madjar, A. Lecavelier des Etangs and J.-M. Désert (Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, CNRS, France), G. Ballester (University of Arizona), R. Ferlet and G. Hébrard (Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, France), and M. Mayor (Geneve Observatory, Switzerland). They observed three transits of the planet in front of the star with Hubble. Observations of the atomic hydrogen envelope were made in ultraviolet (Lyman-alpha) light with Hubble's STIS. Hubble's position above the atmosphere makes it the only telescope that can currently perform this type of ultraviolet study.